A Ping-Pong Affair

By understanding the presence and role of sport in different cultures, we learn why nations hold sport close to their hearts and why they are seen as a part of their national identity.

To understand culture, and our own cultural experiences, we often turn to Asia. The Earth’s largest and most populous continent, enriched with diversity and culture. Digital Asia open’s the doors to a variety of concepts, ideas and functions throughout the Asian culture. Research has shown that apart of this culture, sport is influencing factor that not only show cases athletic ability, but also opens the doors to understand diplomacy and history. For this digital artefact, I have chosen to explore China’s reigning sport, Ping-Pong also known as Table Tennis.

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Culture throughout the ages has progressed, it is “always evolving, dynamic and hybrid” and “cannot be understood as static, eternally given and essentialist”. In order to understand culture, and we must understand its foundations past and present. Table tennis is apart of Chinese history; we acknowledge its integration into society through communism and its role as national identity. Understanding these components allow us to broaden our intercultural understandings, due to my own cultural background and worldview, my research on Asian sporting culture and more broadly has been very much characterised by new understandings.

By applying autoethnography as a research methodology, we are enabled to have an authentic and unaltered experience. Ellis describes autoethnography as “an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyse (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno)”. Autoethnography combines the characteristics of autobiography and ethnography, which allows you to selectively write about your past, thoughts and perceived moments that you feel influence your understanding of your area of study.

Through my existing topline understanding of table tennis, I found a likeness to tennis. This is significant as tennis is a sport I grew up playing and was heavily involved in – and this connection allowed me to find a commonality with my research topic. Ellis explains, “[autoethnographers] study a culture’s relational practices, common values and beliefs, and shared experiences.” Self-narrative “can take us to the depths of personal feeling, leading us to be emotionally moved and sympathetically understanding.” Exploring the culture and training of table tennis, I have been able to empathise with the athletes and take an appreciate to the consistency and focus of the game.

The following digital artefact will explore the game of table tennis in China and its cultural value, and how my understanding has been bolstered and impacted by my personal experiences and culture.

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The Experience.

While some may consider table tennis a “lesser sport”, it is not for the faint-hearted. It is a sport of focus, skill, endurance and consistency.

On September 1st2018, the world saw another year of the Asian Games but in particular the Men’s Table Tennis Finals. Perfect timing for this digital artefact, right? The final’s was a showcase of China’s best male table tennis talent, Fan Zhendong vs. Jeoung Youngsik.

While the match is commentated in an Asian language, the athleticism on display transcends this barrier:

My initial attitude approaching this viewing was anti-climatic to say the least. Having spoken to friends who have watched and played table tennis their reactions were repetitive “it’s a fun game to play, but its like watching tennis… lengthy and boring until the end”.

Prior to watching I wanted to understand the skill behind the table tennis player, and I was able to narrow down the four core professional skills:

Understanding only some of the skill this sport requires, I still struggled to understand how it is set apart from other sports in the world. My readings prompted me to reflect on my past experiences training and playing tennis. Reaction, spin, speed, surface and self-management are also at the core of tennis as a whole.

Understanding the skill of the sport was an epiphany in my understanding of the game, and in turn leads me to develop my appreciation for Ping-Pong.

Here are the highlights of the final match:

My newfound understanding of the game’s skill, rules and regulations enhanced by viewing of this match and the game more broadly.

giphy.gifIt was interesting to recognise the similarities between table tennis and tennis. As a former tennis player, I was able to reflect on the likeness of training patterns across both sports – and this further allowed me to understand and appreciate the technicality of table tennis through my own experience. It extends past western perceptions of Ping-Pong as a game of leisure, and associations with Australian drinking culture and the game of ‘beer-pong’.

This triggered yet another epiphany – much of western sport (particularly in Australia) is deeply entwined with our drinking culture. Most recently, with the end of the NRL season, many teams have been called out for their excessive drinking behaviours. To draw a comparative analysis, I researched instances where Chinese table tennis athletes have been a part of alcohol-related events – and I was unable to find any article that explicitly recounts an occasion. This is interesting to note, as I found it reflective and aligned with Asian culture.

China is known to be a heavily governed and reserved society, where discipline and order are key values. The history of table tennis reflects this as it was introduced during China’s peak of Communism, with the governance of Mao during the People’s Republic of China. Since then, the sport has continued to be apart of the countries identity.

I have found it incredibly interesting to analyse how politics has influenced and the shaped the sport. Not only has table tennis been used as a diplomacy tool, it is a sport that is reflective of a disciplined society. I found that watching the table tennis players’ strokes during a rally, you can clearly see how carefully selected and executed each shot is. The ball is on return within five seconds of the ball contacting their opponent’s paddle.

I have a strong understanding of the endurance and stamina it takes to hold a rally on a tennis court and the continuous back and forth these athletes engage in despite the limited boundaries of the table has left me in awe. I have never understood the accuracy table tennis possesses but it is very stark through the Asia Games men’s finals, where we see the Ping-Pong ball brushing the very edge of the table. However, with applied spin and strength of the opponent, this allows them to contact the ball at a certain height in order to keep the ball in play.

This clip is just one of the many examples I found when researching Ping-Pong training methods. It is so interesting to see how disciplined training rituals are, commonly completed in large groups with a mentor and trainer consistently calling out shadow drills.

I took a minute to reflect and try to imagine the intensity of these training sessions. Could I have done this when I was playing tennis? Yes and no, I think for many Australian sports and in particular tennis, we don’t only focus on the common strokes, rather we take an all round focus on fitness and diet. Much of my training was broken into days, some days on court, some day’s footwork training and others general fitness. By doing this I was able to train majority of my body and it gave me an element of diversity and ‘fun’.

As an observer of table tennis training, I feel as if I would particularly struggle when consistently training one type of stroke and also being indoors. However, this comes with the type of sport. It’s interesting to notice how training methods dramatically shift when it comes to sport, and what type of physical endurance and focus that they require.